VIDEO VAULT | Floyd Loveless, the boy Nevada sentenced to death at 15, and executed at 17
LAS VEGAS (KSNV News3LV) —
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A new book, "The Boy Nevada Killed" tells the story of Floyd Loveless, his crime and his punishment. The author stumbled across the subject while looking for something else in newspaper microfilm, and it caught her eye.
“To me, it was unfair that a kid -- 17 years old -- was executed, so I continued researching,” says Janice Oberding.
The subtitle of her book is "Floyd Loveless and the Juvenile Capital Punishment Debate".
“How easily people, even today, can be brushed aside or judged without really knowing—I’m not saying an excuse, because murder is wrong--but I believe maybe if he had a chance in life, maybe he wouldn't have been there in that car.”
When Loveless was three years old, he was on a walk with his brother and their mother when he witnessed a horrific scene.
“She stopped at the railroad tracks and said ‘You guys wait here’. And right in front of those kids she ran in front of the train and committed suicide.”
Loveless fell into delinquency, starting with petty theft before moving to burglary and ultimately rape at age 15. He was captured, he confessed and was sentenced to seven years at the Indiana State Boys' Reformatory.
“The reform school was a pretty bad place. Charles Manson went there a few years later,” says Oberding. “The kids, they didn't feed them a lot and they used corporal punishment. They were pretty cruel by today’s standards, and even by standards then, I believe.”
Loveless and another youth escaped, and began a journey that was supposed to take them to California. They stole cars and goods along the way.
On August 20, 1942, Loveless and his companion parted ways in Elko in northeastern Nevada. Loveless had stolen a 1942 Studebaker and was stopped at an intersection in nearby Carlin, when Constable Dolph Berning approached him and got into the car.
The constable had been alerted to the stolen vehicle, and initially began questioning Loveless about it. Then the confrontation turned violent.
“Berning, thinking this is a kid, lunged at him. And he pulled this gun. He pulled a gun and there was a fight, and he said he pulled the trigger and they kept fighting and I don't believe he intended to kill him.”
The following day, Berning died of his injuries and Loveless was put on trial for murder. Oberding thinks the deck was stacked, starting with an inexperienced public defender.
“Taylor Wines, his attorney, was a fairly new attorney. For one thing, I don't know why he didn't ask for a change of venue.”
Elko Judge James Dysart presided as Loveless was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death in the gas chamber. Loveless was still 15 at the time.
“The judge was very lenient with the prosecution,” notes Oberding. “Very lenient. And not with the defense. Not at all.
"We had the electric chair, which was pretty cruel. I think people saw it as that's a good way to execute people."
In 1924, Nevada had been the first state to use the gas chamber, which was seen as a relatively humane alternative to hanging or the electric chair. Cyanide pellets were dropped into sulphuric acid beneath the chair the condemned was strapped into, and the chamber filled with lethal fumes.
The view that the gas chamber was humane changed over the decades. California was still using the gas chamber when News 3 broadcast a story about attempts to end the method nationwide. A stay of execution was issued nased on arguments that execution by poison gas--essentially suffocation--constitutes cruel and unusual punishment as forbidden by the Constitution.
After a second trial and several stays, Loveless was executed in Reno on September 29, 1944 at age 17.
“It was controversial,” sighs Oberding. “I'm surprised that it didn't get more attention than it did.”
In 1983, Nevada switched from the gas chamber to lethal injection, and the minimum age for execution in the state is now 18.
The gas chamber was last used in the United States on March 3, 1999 in Arizona.